Hurling and camogie

Joey Holden onto hope of fifth All-Ireland with Ballyhale - but still wary of Dunloy

Joey Holden in action for Ballyhale against Galway's Portumna. Pic Seamus Loughran
Paul Keane

Mexico, Belize, Guatemala, Nicaragua. Joey Holden describes the Central American countries as like a 'path' leading you down to the larger landmass of South America. In the coming weeks and months, he and his girlfriend, Laura, will explore them all.

They were making their way down towards Mexico - Holden watched July's All-Ireland hurling final from a bar in San Francisco - when clubmate and former Kilkenny colleague Colin Fennelly convinced him that he should park his plans and return to help Ballyhale Shamrocks make history. A county five-in-a-row, in the club's 50th year, was duly achieved.

Then came the provincial and All-Ireland series games, keeping Holden from resuming his travels until, well, he reckons some time in the next fortnight.

"Mexico City is the first stop and we'll work down from there," he said. "We're not going to tie it down too much because if we like a place we might stay X amount of time there."

He hopes to leave with a fifth AIB All-Ireland club medal in his pocket. Dunloy hope otherwise. In the neutral corner, the bookmakers have this one down as a Sunday jaunt for the most decorated club team ever.

"I don't really buy into the favourites thing," said the former Kilkenny captain. "Listen, we weren't favourites the last day against Ballygunner and we won so I don't really buy into all that, we have two teams and it's going to be 50-50. Dunloy have been dominant in Antrim the last few years, they've won a lot of games to get here, they've gotten over Slaughtneil, St Thomas', and St Thomas' should have beaten us last year. Slaughtneil a couple of years back, we had a serious battle with them too. Getting over those teams just shows the credentials that Dunloy have."

As part of the last line of Ballyhale's defence, full-back Holden has taken particular notice of the pace and dynamism within the Dunloy team.

"You saw (Keelan) Molloy's goal the last day, started all the way out on the '65, and he was just gone," he said. "I think the St Thomas' boys were maybe a bit surprised and there was a gap there and he just saw that small opening and was gone through it and there was no stopping him. That's just a snapshot of the pace that they have."

Whilst doing their own research, Dunloy will have noted how in the last couple of years alone, Ballyhale wiped beads of sweat from their brows after narrow wins over St Rynagh's and St Thomas'. Slaughtneil pushed them all the way at the beginning of 2020. More recently, Naas, the previous season's AIB All-Ireland intermediate winners, trailed by just a point at half-time in November's Leinster semi-final tie.

The one constant was that Shamrocks were strong favourites for all those matches.

"What we focus on is what we're doing on the training field," maintained Holden. "If a training session is bad, I'd be more worried rather than what people are saying about us. You can maybe see it if people are getting complacent and you're saying, 'Hold on a second, when we're a complacent team we're a poor team, just an average team'. So you have to keep going for those high standards."

Holden reckons there's a decent chance that this will be his last game at Croke Park. Possibly even his last as a senior player for Ballyhale.

He's only 32 but won't play again in 2023 as he reckons he'll be travelling for six or seven months.

"We'll never say never but I won't be any younger when I come back," he shrugged.

So no more senior hurling, a Croke Park swansong?

"Oh I'd say so, I'd imagine so, yeah," he nodded. "You'd be thinking so. We don't know how long we'll be gone for either. When I come back, I'm hoping to hurl away but that could be at whatever level or standard. There could be a food belly or a beer belly to negotiate. We'll just see how it goes."

If Ballyhale get the job done tomorrow, it will be Holden's first All-Ireland win since his father, Patrick, passed away in September. Another layer of emotion to contend with.

"Dad would have passed away during the Kilkenny championship, just before we played Clara," he said. "He was just mad into it. When he was in the full of his health, he'd be at all the trainings. A few of the older generation, they were so into it, it wasn't just about the matches, they'd be at the trainings as well. They'd nearly tell you how you'd perform before you'd even perform in the game itself."

On a weekend like this, they would surely urge caution though Holden doesn't seem to require the advice.

"Hopefully the Ballygunner game will stand to us but Dunloy came through a hard game as well, it's 50-50," he insisted.

Hurling and camogie